“How can I protect something so perfect without evil?” Lady Gaga asks herself in her song Born This Way. I was raising two questions similar to this one recently while thinking about the link between group solidarity and nationalism. First of them was - Is nationalism of ethically positive, negative or neutral value? The second was - Can we defend the existence of nationalism in society if we come to a conclusion that it is an unethical category or even just an ethically neutral one?
For many intellectuals, students and critically thinking people nationalism is nothing more than an aesthetically repulsive urge of unaccomplished individuals that lack rational cold minded justification. Something that, in the best case, can be justified only by ethical relativism. I do not want to write off my consideration on nationalism that easily. I will assume that we can determine the ethical value of nationalism and from a pragmatic point of view conclude if it is the force of good or bad in our world.
In rising the case against nationalism my main argument is that nationalism undermines universal values. As a result of the simple fact of being born in two different countries or nations, two nationalists will easily make exactly the opposite conclusions. We can just imagine French and Algerian nationalists during the Algerian War of Independence. They will consider exactly the opposite actions to be justifiable precisely because of the fact that they are both nationalists. George Orwell makes it clear in his 1945 Notes on Nationalism where he writes: “In nationalist thought there are facts which are both true and untrue, known and unknown.” Nationalism includes strong internal feelings and those create a distorted vision of the world and partisanship. Nationalism always includes Us and Them. That is why I do not believe that cosmopolitanism can be seen as a global nationalism as long as it does not have “Them” part.
Why don’t we then just write of nationalism as an unacceptable element from the past (similar to racism and imperialism)? There are two main reasons. First of them is that in certain circumstances nationalism might have cohesive power in a society. It can be used to boast certain positive trends. Secondly, nationalism is a resilient and adaptable enemy.
When I say that nationalism in certain circumstances can have cohesive power I have in mind for example some of the Arab nations. Lack of shared national identity represents a great obstacle for countries such as Lebanon, Iraq or Syria. Vacuum created by the collapse of secular Arab nationalism attracted sectarian ideologues who exploited religious diversity in brutal civil wars. The lack of a common vision of the future in the mentioned countries enables external centres of power to engage into proxy wars, which puts an end on any hope of the creation of a united foreign policy and make the mentioned countries objects instead of subjects on a global stage. On the other side, many multi-religious countries can avoid sectarianism if they create a common shared identity. This identity can among other be based on nationalism. Such a case we can see in the small Balkan nation of Albania, where most of the population is constituted by the Muslim community, but there are also significant Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic communities. When I say that nationalism has a capacity to boast certain positive trends, than I have in mind processes such as decolonisation. It is hard to imagine successful decolonisation of the Indian subcontinent without national solidarity and agenda.
Coming from Central European and Balkan background, parts of the world that produced two world wars and violent local conflicts thorough the 20th century, I have every reason to see nationalism with great suspicion. Extreme forms of nationalism destroyed millions of lives and human destinies and uneased human consciences. But is it only the case with extreme forms of nationalism? After all, I was just arguing that nationalism can play a constructive role in certain circumstances. I would say that we cannot that easily clear the name of the non-radical forms of nationalism. After all, it is creating a condition in which we will consider some strangers to be closer and even more important to us just on the basis of their supposed ethnic affiliations or residence address. I think that is a good enough reason to label nationalism as an ethically negative category. Maybe we can imagine certain situation in which the caste system or differentiation based upon aristocratic birth can produce some positive effects. Nevertheless, it will not give us the right to claim that castes and feudalism are ethically justifiable. Today, it is more than ever important to underline the universal values of equality, human rights and dignity that belong to each and every individual on our planet. Those belong to the same extent to the citizens of Berlin and Syrian refugees on their dangerous way to Europe. Those shall apply in the same way to US citizens, legal and illegal immigrants of Phoenix, Arizona. Lack of such an understanding and rise of xenophobic populism show us the ugly face of nationalism. At the same time it shows us that nationalism is still a deeply rooted sentiment in our societies and that we need to learn how to deal with such a situation.
Now, when I came to a conclusion that nationalism is indeed a negative force, but one that is here to stay, I would like to consider if it is possible to instrumentalise existing national sentiments in a way that they produce maximum of positive and minimum of negative effects. At the same time, there shall be a measure where we will not make space for more nationalism than is absolutely necessary to avoid the aggressive populist xenophobic responses. Bear in mind that it is not the same to a previously mentioned argument of negative value of extreme and positive of non-extreme nationalism or patriotism as some prefer to call it. I argue that both of them are negative, but that non-extreme forms are the ones that do not interrupt proper and joust function of our societies. It is important for decision makers and public office holders to understand the strengths and dangers of nationalism. They must show the understanding that it is immoral to abuse those forces just as it is immoral to abuse racist or sexist sentiments. They cannot close off the space for nationalism entirely since it will almost certainly produce the situation in which disenfranchised discontent will get the nationalist overtone. However, they can manage this sentiment in the most responsible manner and orient it into a constructive direction. This direction means the support for important public projects, social responsibility; tax paying, participation and support for sportists and other representatives at international competition, care for cultural heritage and environment, care for proper function of health and education system…
I am finishing my essay while drinking Columbian coffee from a Norwegian mug and watching the busy Atlantic port of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria with ships from all around the world. It really seems from this point that nationalism is a silly sentiment. But then at the next moment I am finding it very hard to translate some words from Serbian into English and I realise that we are a part of certain communities and that we indeed share a certain set of common illusions as would Benedict Anderson probably similarly say. It is up to us to learn how to live with this without hurting people around us. It is also our task to explain to the future generations that they shall see the rest of the mankind as their true brothers and sisters with whom they need to work for the common benefit.
Photo credits: Hand of Coexistence, Pohang, South Korea, Public domain, Salamander 724
Cankaya University, Ankara, Turkey
Undergraduate student of Political Science and International Relations